|On Wednesday night Jan. 21, 1998, the secret playground of the Hamilton Township elite was exposed when a lone New Jersey trooper flashed his badge and was let into a private club on woodsy Cypress Lane.
The plainclothesman walked in and soon spotted some of the biggest names in Hamilton business and politics milling around a dozen top-line slot machines, 10 video poker games, six roulette wheels and 10 card tables.
There were surveillance cameras watching the gaming rooms, just like in Atlantic City, and there was a bar stocked with top-shelf liquor and a posting of the prices for drinks.
Few patrons paid much attention as the cop — let in by someone who thought him a member — walked around eyeing everything and talking with the club president, Andy Sivo.
After the trooper walked out, however, Sivo ran around the club telling everyone to "Get out! Get out! We're going to get hit.''
An insider would tell The Trentonian that dozens of men of local stature dropped cards and dice and ran out to their Buicks and Cadillacs, speeding away from the club that night like teens in hotrods.
In a scene like an old gangster movie, the Baron Athletic Association was exposed as a illegal casino and tavern that pretended to be primarily a bocce club and charitable organization.
And just as it always had been in illegal gambling in Jersey, the operators of the club had connections with the politicians and other authorities in town, including a key Baron, Mayor Jack Rafferty.
In the days after the raid that came when the first trooper returned with a search warrant, more manpower and a few trucks, several other local bigwigs were exposed as members of the men-only spa.
There was Assemblyman Paul Kramer, who was also the local government's high-paid finance director, and Mercer Freeholder Patrick Migliaccio. There was Hamilton's top judge, Richard Piepszak, whom Rafferty had appointed.
Rafferty aide Mo Rossi and prominent businessman Robert Mule, the chairman of Hamilton's planning board, were members. So were ex-Jersey lawmakers Joe Bocchini and Fran McManimon, meaning there were Baron Democrats also.
Most of them dismissed the gambling and booze allegations as minor and said the Baron's only real interest was helping out the Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Pemberton Township and other charities.
Bocchini said, for instance, that he stopped in the club once or twice a year and wasn't really aware it was a regular gambling operation: "I do know they raise a lot of money for charity. I think the figure is $800,000 or maybe a million dollars now.''
Still, pesky newspaper reporters kept asking how the club got a dozen slot machines that would cost $10,000 each if purchased by a casino in Atlantic City, the only place they are legal. What about the $11,000 in currency, two giant bags of quarters, and 100 cases of beer seized by the troopers?
Before the end of the month, some of the questions would be answered and the political and business establishments of Hamilton Township would be rocked hard enough to help bring down Rafferty's Republican government.
In an exclusive report on Jan. 30, The Trentonian cited police sources as saying investigators were looking into mob links to the club and its slots and that the detectives were being helped by surveillance tapes seized from the club security office.
That same day it came out that the Trenton judge about to be appointed Mercer County prosecutor, Dan Giaquinto, had been a "provisional'' member of the club for six months the previous year. Giaquinto wouldn't answer when asked if he ever saw the slots.
Rafferty and other Barons howled about headlines in both Trenton newspapers disclosing the suspected mob link and spotlighting the last-minute controversy over the appointment of Giaquinto.
"The idea that some kind of "mob connection'' exists is preposterous and any report to the contrary is grossly unfair, unfounded, irresponsible and totally untrue,'' Rafferty said in a statement issued to the newspapers in early February, after almost two weeks of dodging questions about his status as a Baron.
Less than a month after the raid, however, Jersey Attorney General Peter Verniero was announcing that his top mob buster, deputy Samuel Reale Jr. of the AG's rackets squad, would head the state probe into what was going on at the Baron club.
A month later, on March 13, Reale filed court papers saying his preliminary investigation showed the club took in $3.5 million in illegal gambling and booze money over the previous six years. Reale's disclosures also alleged the Baron:
* Earned only 17 percent of its income legally.
* Raked in $1.9 million running an illegal lottery called "The Ticket'' between 1992 and January.
* Had 16,233 quarters, or $4,058.25, in the hopper of its 22 regular and video slots when the raid occurred.
* Encouraged high-stakes gambling by installing slots that would take $100 bills.
* Kept records showing who was responsible for the payoffs from the slots and poker machines.
* Used a sophisticated system of 10 computerized surveillance cameras to prevent the skimming of cash from the club.
Saying it all was evidence of racketeering, Reale moved for state seizure of the Baron building and grounds, something permitted under Jersey's "RICO" law, which is typically aimed at Mafia families.
It also came out at about the same time that the sumptuous Baron club, which also had a pool and weight room, had never paid taxes on the property in its more than 25 years on Cypress Lane. Taxes were waived because of it status as a "charitable organization.''
Soon after, it also came out that the Baron had never applied to the local government for permits when it built additions to the club and that some of the new construction had been put in wetlands where development was banned by state law.
"Now the Baron is a real scandal,'' retired salesman Harold Daddona, 73, said after Reale's March disclosures. "You have cops, politicians, even the mayor of Hamilton and a judge breaking laws. Worse than that, they're not even paying their taxes. And all they're trying to do is talk their way out if it. It's disgraceful.''
During that spring Hamilton's Democratic organization, out of power at Township Hall for the past 24 years, began smelling political blood — and all the big patronage jobs the mayor gets to give out.
Vinny Capodanno, an unsuccessful previous candidate for township council, and ex-local Democratic Chairman Joe Fabrizi called on Rafferty to resign. As mayor, they said, Rafferty was Hamilton's top law enforcer, responsible for stopping any illegal gambling or boozing, as well as for supervising the township health and construction inspectors who should have noticed the Baron slots and bar and building additions.
"Obviously, the lunatic fringe is alive and well in Hamilton,'' GOP Chairman Mike Angarone said in a letter that also branded as "malcontents'' and "losers'' all the Democrats complaining about the Baron situation.
Through the rest of 1998, speculation mounted that Rafferty wouldn't seek a seventh term as mayor. Rafferty wouldn't comment on his future, or field any other questions from the newspapers because he was still bruised by the coverage of the Baron raid.
By Christmas, Hamilton Republicans were talking quietly about finding a replacement should Rafferty decide to drop out. They also were wondering when the attorney general was going to come out with indictments.
One day short of the one-year anniversary of the raid, a state grand jury handed up indictments charging a dozen Baron officers and a club bookkeeper with racketeering. But with the exception of Mule, the 59-year-old club treasurer, there wasn't a known name among them.
The 11 other indicted Baron officers ranged in age from 61 to 77. When trotted into court for an arraignment, their families and friends filled the courtroom and some of their lawyers said the state was going after old-timers who knew little about what was going on at the Baron.
The indictment also revised Reale's earlier report on the money taken in by the Baron. During the 18 years it operated before the raid, the club generated $6.5 million in illegal revenue, the indictment said.
In the only hint about the future of the probe, the indictment also said "an unindicted co-conspirator known to the grand jury'' accompanied one of the indicted, 73-year-old Dino Spanicciati, to some place in Pennsylvania in 1997 to pick up new slot machines.
In announcing the indictments, Verniero said the Baron probe was over and that all the money appeared to have been sunk back into the world-class bocce court and other amenities of the club.
Which raised the eyebrows of many, including famed ex-Philadelphia police mob investigator and author Frank Friel. He said no one other than an Atlantic City casino can get modern slot machines without help from one of America's mob families.
When pressed on this point the next day, a spokesman for Verniero said there must have been some misunderstanding because the AG's probe was continuing and that investigators were still trying to identify who was behind the Baron gambling operation.
But the Baron lawyers aren't making it easy for them. Kevin Hart, who represents the club, convinced Mercer Judge Linda Feinberg, for instance, to put a hold on state seizure of the property under the rackets law.
As a result, Baron officers these days are talking about renting out the club for weddings and the like to raise money for the defense of the organization and its indicted officers.
Baron lawyers are advancing on the criminal front also. Only weeks ago, they got Judge Charles Delehey to order Reale and the other prosecutors to turn over full transcripts of the grand jury probe, including the blacked out names of prominent people connected to the club.
In October, Delehey took away some of Reale's plea-bargaining leverage, saying prosecutors should consider letting some of the elderly defendants admit to lesser charges. As charged now, most of the suspects face seven years in prison if convicted, the judge noted.
Without saying so in public, of course, Reale is hanging prison time over the heads of the small fry to get them to talk about the bosses of the Baron organization. But the Baron defenders contend they know nothing, and that Reale steered the grand jury to other aspects of the case whenever a juror asked about any of the prominent names.
Last spring, after leaving the GOP in suspense for months, Rafferty announced his retirement from politics, saying the Baron case had nothing to do with his call.
With Sen. Peter Inverso unwilling to take up the GOP mayoral banner, the nod went to Councilman Pete Schroeder, a retired Hamilton cop best known from his years as "Officer Friendly.''
Surprisingly, the Baron scandal hardly came up at all in the mayoral debate of 1999. Democratic candidate Glen Gilmore, apparently mindful of polls showing him well ahead in late summer, let his council running mate, Capodanno, do all the harping about the Barons.
Gilmore, who reminds so many of the young Rafferty of the 1970s, and his Democratic ticket won handily on Election Day earlier this month. The next day the mayor-elect said he would be cleaning Township Hall of all the Republicans holding high-paying appointed positions.
And the Baron investigation will drag on, apparently, into the next century.
|1998: The Baron gets busted|
|By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian|
|Hamilton Mayor Jack Rafferty was the most influential of all Baron AA members.|